‘Narcissism’ is often used as a pejorative term these days. But some levels of it may actually be both natural and healthy, according to some experts.
Healthy narcissism sounds like a bit of a misnomer.
After all, can there really be a healthy amount of some of the more challenging attributes of narcissism, like exploitativeness, entitlement, or lack of empathy? Not really.
But, at the core, narcissism is about how you see yourself in relation to others. And it’s possible to have a positive self-concept and a healthy amount of self-interest without it crossing a line.
Some experts would argue that if these personality traits are expressed in a healthy manner, then it doesn’t fall in the narcissism category at all and that the term “narcissism” is overused.
Other mental health professionals, however, still use the term “healthy narcissism” as a way to refer to necessary selfish and self-centered behavior. Although a more accurate term might be “healthy self-absorption,” healthy narcissism is the term most commonly used.
Narcissism is a popular buzzword that’s often equated with something bad, but that may not paint a complete picture, says Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a licensed psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
Instead, a person who acts according to their self-interest may not be a narcissist at all. This behavior is just commonly associated with narcissism. Therefore, when selfish behavior is done in a thoughtful and unmalicious way, we might think of it as “healthy narcissism.”
Positive traits of “healthy narcissism” might include:
- positive self-image
- high self-esteem
- ample self-confidence
- acceptable level of self-importance
Where does this concept come from?
The concept of healthy narcissism has been around for over a century, though researchers still haven’t reached a consensus about it.
Sigmund Freud first coined it “primary narcissism,” referring to the primal drive that humans have towards self-preservation. He viewed this as a natural part of the human psyche, only problematic when taken to extremes.
In the 1930s, psychoanalyst Paul Federn used “healthy narcissism” to refer to self-love.
By the 1970s, the idea gained traction when psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described “normal narcissism” as a part of the maturation process. He suggested that children who get their needs met are able to develop healthy self-esteem and self-confidence.
“Healthy narcissism” is not a clinical term found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
“When people talk about healthy narcissism, they may be talking about the positive qualities and aspects of narcissism,” explains Lira de la Rosa.
Although this may still not be an accurate depiction of narcissism since any narcissistic spin on healthy personality traits is, by definition, unhealthy, here is what people mean when they think of healthy narcissism:
- ability to draw healthy boundaries
- assertive communication
- drawing on your positive qualities to form relationships
- positive feelings about yourself
- pride in your abilities and accomplishments
While narcissism is a popular term that gets tossed around a lot, only a licensed mental health professional can make a proper diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) by looking for nine formal symptoms. Some may have just a few narcissistic traits, putting narcissism on a spectrum.
Although any healthy expression of symptoms associated with narcissism does not technically fall on the narcissism spectrum, many are referring to these symptoms as “healthy narcissism.” Here’s how to spot the difference between narcissism and “healthy” narcissism.
|Healthy narcissism||Unhealthy narcissism|
|You feel proud to talk about your accomplishments in a job interview.||You often talk over others to boast about your accomplishments at a dinner party.|
|You advocate for yourself in a romantic relationship while being considerate of another person’s needs.||You gaslight or manipulate your partner into getting your needs met, finding it difficult to empathize with how they feel.|
|You ask a friend in publishing if they can offer guidance on writing an article.||You pretend to befriend someone for their resources and industry connections.|
|You attempt to repair relationships when you’ve hurt other people.||You believe your behaviors are justified and that others are at fault.|
|You feel appreciative when others offer compliments on your appearance or work.||You consistently seek new ways to receive validation from others.|
Your personality style and level of narcissism can come from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, says Lira de la Rosa.
In fact, it’s [common] for toddlers to have a developmental process where they are only preoccupied with getting their own needs met by a caregiver, he explains. Young toddlers may only be able to see things from their own perspective for a time — and that’s perfectly okay and expected.
As toddlers age, this phase tends to shift into more give-and-take in relationships.
“It can become more balanced as [toddlers] develop into other developmental stages and begin to form a better sense of themselves and their relation to others. This process can vary for every individual, as genetics and environment also play crucial roles,” he says.
In some cases, genetics and environment can prevent a toddler from growing out of this development phase. They may end up carrying some maladaptive coping strategies into childhood and adulthood.
Some research suggests that specific parenting styles are linked to narcissistic traits, like in homes where caregivers are more permissive towards their children, though more studies are needed to understand this connection.
Narcissism is a personality trait depicted by high self-regard and self-importance. Although, by definition, narcissism describes an unhealthy expression of these traits, some might refer to healthy expressions of self-absorption as healthy narcissism.
Healthy narcissism is not an official term but it can be a useful way to describe behavior that might be somewhat taboo in society, such as prioritizing your own self-interest.
The idea of healthy narcissism is that you go about fulfilling your needs in a non-exploitative or entitled way. You are able to develop high self-esteem and a sense of self-worth without putting others down.
If you’re unsure whether your behaviors depict healthy or unhealthy narcissistic traits, you may want to speak with a therapist. A therapist can help you better know yourself and develop a healthy balance of selfish and selfless behaviors.